War, empire and modernist poetry, 1914-1922

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‘New masses of unexplored arts and facts are pouring into the vortex of London’, Ezra Pound reported shortly after the European powers declared war – ‘things which are in seed and dynamic’. Symbolists; Futurists; Imagists; Cubists; Vorticists; Post-Impressionists; Fenollosa’s China and Japan; the Noh theater; Bloomsbury and the Omega Workshop; Blast and the Rebel Arts Center; Elizabeth Robins and Ibsen; Bergson and Proust; Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; the Poets Club at the Café Tour Eiffel; Frida Uhl Strindberg’s Cave of the Golden Calf; suffragist demonstrations in the streets; critics of empire from Yeats, Joyce and Casement to Morel, Conrad and Tagore; Freud on dreams, the unconscious and psychoanalysis; ragtime, music halls and Marie Lloyd; the cinema and Charlie Chaplin; warmongers and pacifists; home-grown Fabians and Vladimir Ilyich Oulianoff (aka Lenin) reading Marx and plotting the overthrow of world capitalism amid the treasures of the British Museum: from seeds blown into the London vortex from all corners of the world sprang the flowering of art and thought known as Anglo-American modernism. ‘London, deah old Lundon, is the place for poesy’, Pound declared in 1909. By 1914, poets were transmuting these international influences into new aesthetic languages that neither waited for the war nor required it but primed retorts to the guns of August from vantages unbounded by nation and empire. While the war inspired every kind of poetry, Pound and T.S. Eliot, expatriate Americans who had ‘modernized’ their work by 1914 and spent the war years as civilians in the imperial metropolis, confronted Europe’s cataclysmic technological and economic civil warfare from within its social and cultural surround. In Pound’s Cathay, Homage to Sextus Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, Poems and The Waste Land, these poets deploy a versatile internationalist poetics that London’s insular ‘Georgian’ establishment met with ridicule akin to that which Roger Fry’s 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibition inspired. Their works register a crisis of poetic voice – and poetic silence – as they grapple with the moral contradictions of this ‘tragic and unnecessary war’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to
Subtitle of host publicationThe Poetry of the First World War
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781139087520
ISBN (Print)9781107018235
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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